A dramatic example of the power of mental suggestion involved a small group of people with a mysterious congenital condition called 'ichthyosiform erythroderma', also known disparagingly as 'fish-skin disease' because of the unsightly fish-scale-like crusts that cover most of the sufferer's body. In one study, five patients were hypnotized and told to focus on a part of their body and visualize the skin becoming normal. Within just a few weeks, 80 per cent of each patient's body had completely healed, with the skin remaining smooth and clear (Br J Dermatol, 1966; 78: 101-5).
Through hypnotic intention, spinal-surgery patients about to undergo their operations have reduced blood loss by nearly half simply by directing their blood supply away from the site of the surgery (Advances, 1985; 2: 11-21). Pregnant women have been able to turn their babies from breech positions, burn victims have sped up their healing and people suffering haemorrhages in the gastrointestinal tract have willed their bleeding to stop (Dienstfrey H. Mind and mindlessness in mind-body research, in Schlitz M et al., eds. Consciousness and Healing: Integral Approaches to Mind-Body Healing. St Louis, MO: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone, 2005). Clearly, during an altered state that roughly corresponds to the hyperalert state of intense meditation, conscious thought can convince the body to endure pain, cure many serious diseases and change virtually any condition.
Mental intention has been used to produce actual physiological changes-and not only in athletes' bodies. Guang Yue, an exercise psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio, carried out research comparing participants who went to the gym with those who performed a virtual workout in their heads. Those who regularly visited the gym were able to increase their muscle strength by 30 per cent. But those who remained in their arm-chairs and ran through a mental rehearsal of the weight training in their minds increased muscle power by almost half as much.
Volunteers between 20 and 35 years of age imagined flexing one of their biceps as hard as they could during daily training sessions carried out five times a week. After ensuring that the participants were not doing any actual exercise, including tensing their muscles, the researchers discovered an astonishing 13.5 per cent increase in muscle size and strength after just a few weeks, an advantage that persisted for three months after the mental training stopped (J Neurophysiol, 1992; 67: 114-23).
In 1997, Dr David Smith at the University of Chester in the UK came up with similar results: participants who worked out could achieve 30 per cent increases in strength, while those who just imagined themselves doing the training achieved a 16 per cent increase (Smith D et al. The effect of mental practice on muscle strength and EMG activity. Proceedings of the British Psychological
Society Annual Conference, 1998; 6: 116).
One study demonstrated that, under hypnosis, women increased the dimensions of their breasts simply by visualizing themselves on the beach with the sun's rays warming their chests (Barber TX, Changing 'unchangeable' bodily processes by [hypnotic] suggestions: A new look at hypnosis, cognitions, imagining and the mind-body problem, in Sheikh AA, ed. Imagination and Healing. Farmingdale, NY: Baywood Publishing, 1984).
The Healing Contract
But what about the role of the healer? Studies show that the effect is enhanced when the practitioner, as well as the patient, believes that the the treatment will work. In nearly 40 per cent of such cases, the placebo proved effective (Clin Psych Rev, 1993; 13: 375-91).